April 19, 2024

Urban Living Celebrating 50 Years

Tale of Two Neighborhoods

Two Florida communities -- unlike demographically and geographically -- followed similar paths as they declined, then rose again over the past 50 years. Today, they face the same challenges going forward.

Cynthia Barnett | 9/1/2008

Lake Eola/Thornton Park: 2000s

Lake Eola
Residents worry about the creep of condo towers closer to the neighborhoods near Lake Eola.

Lake Eola/Thornton Park: On a recent morning, developer Craig Ustler sips a house blend at the Starbucks on the corner of Central Boulevard and Summerlin Avenue and contemplates the transformation from Lake Eerie-ola to hot address. Starbucks is a tenant in Thornton Park Central, a $31-million, mixed-used project completed by Ustler and Phil Rampy in 2001. Overhead are 56 loft condos. Around the corner are shops like independent bookstore Urban Think.

» “It takes much, much longer than anyone realizes,” says Craig Ustler. “But these projects have to evolve and become indigenous.”
Ustler owns and operates several restaurants now, including Hue and Cityfish in Thornton Park Central. Annual sales at his eateries exceed $12 million. He and Rampy have pumped nearly $100 million more into other developments, including Eola South, Osceola Brownstones, 801 North Orange and East on Park. Moms and dads push baby strollers where police cars used to flash their lights. Along with the 20-somethings the developers expected, the neighborhood is drawing a surprise demographic: Empty-nesters moving into the condos.

Thornton Park
Craig Ustler (left) and Phil Rampy were early renovators in Thornton Park. [Photo: Gregg Matthews]

But despite the many signs of success, the revitalization of Thornton Park is far from perfect, and far from over. Some lots sit empty where developers bulldozed old houses to make way for new projects, then backed out as the economy sagged. The new-urbanist ideal of leaving the car at home — or not having a car at all — clearly hasn’t been realized. Parking is a problem, and people seem to drive short distances just to have lunch on Washington Street. Sue Macnamara says families aren’t thrilled about the bar scene in the neighborhood; it’s crowded and sometimes obnoxious. And there’s growing tension over the creep of condo towers from downtown proper into the neighborhood. Most recently, local firm Eola Capital proposed a 20-story tower on property it owns across from Lake Eola’s waterfront playground; the company would have to raze five historic homes to build it. “This is where you get tested,” says Ustler, who has backed off of his next mixed-use project in favor of building office space, which is still in demand in the neighborhood.

Sara Van Arsdel, the history center director and anthropologist by training, says she feels sure that the neighborhood will pass the test. “Downtown Orlando and particularly Lake Eola and Thornton Park have tremendous providence,” Van Arsdel says. The economic downturn means “people will become dependent on their neighborhoods once again, and these are neighborhoods people can depend on.”

The latest big tenant moving in nearby at The Paramount on East Lake Avenue? Publix — returning downtown after more than 50 years.

Tags: Housing/Construction

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